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Nationals reunite with Astros, who promptly pounce on Josiah Gray

Houston 6, Washington 1

Josiah Gray struggled in the first inning Friday, giving up five runs in Washington's 6-1 loss to the Houston Astros. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Houston Astros second baseman José Altuve stepped into the batter’s box to begin Friday’s game and was greeted by boos from the Nationals Park crowd of 18,433. Altuve responded by blasting a homer to center field on Josiah Gray’s first pitch, one of five runs the 24-year-old right-hander allowed in the first inning of a 6-1 loss.

Even more boos followed Altuve’s home run. More than two years since the Nationals beat the Astros to win the 2019 World Series, much has changed for these two teams. But fan antipathy toward Houston remains strong.

Since the Nationals won the title on an October night in Texas, the franchises have traveled in opposite directions. That Game 7 victory was the Nationals’ last playoff game. The Astros reached the World Series again last season, falling to another destiny-sprinkled team in the Braves.

Before the game, Nationals Manager Dave Martinez downplayed the significance of Friday’s return engagement.

“I’ll never forget the memories, but it’s behind us,” Martinez said. “They’ve got some new players, a different team. We come in with different players as well. It’s two totally different ballclubs.”

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Only eight players from Washington’s World Series roster are still on the team. Three haven’t played this year (Aníbal Sánchez, Joe Ross and Stephen Strasburg), and one is on the 60-day injured list (Sean Doolittle), leaving just four who were eligible to play Friday night (Juan Soto, Patrick Corbin, Tanner Rainey and Victor Robles).

Will Harris, the losing pitcher in Game 7, is a National now, but he’s working his way back from an injury.

Houston has still retained 11 players from that World Series team, even after a sign-stealing scandal and former Nationals manager Dusty Baker — who received a standing ovation Friday — taking the reins. The eight hitters who remain were in Friday’s lineup that helped the Astros grab an early lead and roll to their 11th straight win.

“[Gray] can’t just think he’s going to throw the ball down the middle, especially when you got a team like that that hits,” Martinez said. “Today is a perfect example: He missed early, and he paid.”

Following Altuve’s home run, Gray gave up doubles to Michael Brantley and Alex Bregman. Yordan Álvarez followed with a single that drove in Bregman, putting Gray in an early 3-0 hole. Just when things looked as if they were getting better for Gray when he got Kyle Tucker to pop out to catcher Keibert Ruiz, he allowed a two-run home run to Yuli Gurriel to push the Astros ahead 5-0. Gray had thrown just 14 pitches and allowed five hits with an exit velocity of at least 100 mph.

“Elite hitters,” Gray said of the Astros. “They’re as good as it gets, so continuing to fine-tune my stuff and make better pitches, obviously. … After the first, I was like, ‘All right, I’m going to give the team as much as I can.’ And to be able to go six was a positive.”

Gray, perhaps the biggest prospect the Nationals received in the deadline deal with the Dodgers last summer, settled down after the first inning. He allowed just one more run over the next five innings, helping to save the bullpen while throwing 59 of his 94 pitches for strikes. But the damage was done. Gray, who came in with a 3.45 ERA, saw that mark rise to 4.34 by the time he exited.

After the first, Gray and Ruiz used all of the right-hander’s arsenal and moved them around the strike zone to keep the Astros off balance. He retired 14 of the final 18 batters he faced, and his only major slip up was a third-inning home run that Álvarez sent 438 feet to dead center, extending the Astros’ lead to 6-0.

“The fact that he unfortunately was giving up those five runs in the first inning and then came back and threw five really good innings, it just says a lot about his ability,” Ruiz said through an interpreter.

How did Alcides Escobar fare in his return to the lineup? Escobar had a productive return to the field after missing the Nationals’ last series with an infection under the nail of his left index finger. He went 0 for 4 but did drive in the team’s lone run on a fielder’s choice in the seventh.

He also made a pair of stellar plays defensively. In the fifth, he started a double play with a diving stop in the shift, jumping up to tag second before throwing out Álvarez. Two innings later, he made a barehanded play to throw out Altuve on a dribbler.

How many hits did the Nationals have Friday? Just eight — all singles. The team couldn’t string hits together in succession, finishing 0 for 4 with runners in scoring position and leaving eight runners on base.